[iDC] Immaterial Labor and life beyond utility

Eric Kluitenberg epk at xs4all.nl
Mon Aug 13 23:15:20 UTC 2007


Funny discussion. I wanted to respond to some things that John has  
written, partly because when I read his comments and my own few lines  
quoted I could not help but agreeing with some of his points, yet  
disagreeing with others, anyway great because it allows me to rethink  
a few issues again. Also, some terms are not used entirely properly,  
so just a few comments here...

On Aug 5, 2007, at 20:04, john sobol wrote:
> On 5-Aug-07, at 4:57 AM, trebor at thing.net wrote:
>> Back in the iDC archive I found Eric Kluitenberg's comments, which  
>> can
>> perhaps be a starting point to point forward.
>> "... the quest for self-determination and  meaningful and memorable
>> experiences ultimately will hinge on people's understanding that  
>> they are
>> not merely consuming a product, but that they are actually  
>> participating
>> in a meaningful social process not guided by an extrinsic logic  
>> (profit),
>> something that rather has intrinsic, or 'sovereign' value. I don't  
>> believe
>> that these two can be fused into one as a business process always
>> necessarily relies on an external utilitarian motive beyond the  
>> object
>> itself (profit, market share, enhancing brand recognition, long-term
>> consumer franchise, etc..), while we can learn from Bataille that the
>> sovereign (experience) is 'life beyond utility.'"
>> I'm not sure if life beyond utility is possible today.
>> What's your take?

> A few comments:
> firstly, I think that Eric's strict binary formulation of authentic  
> vs. commercial experience is misguided. I can think of innumerable  
> examples of meaningful experiences that combine both, as I am sure  
> any reader of this post can as well. (Examples from this morning:  
> using my iMac/ISP to connect to the Internet, buying bagels at the  
> local bakery, reading the newspaper.) It's a theoretical divide of  
> use for theoretical discussions but little else.

The citation that Trebor sent is indeed quite strict, and so the  
first thing for me was to recapture in response to what I wrote it  
originally, to see why this strict wording... Actually this was in  
response to a crappie website and (I think) fake project by Phillips  
around "experience design" in which some distastefully fashionable  
argument is made that industry can really learn something from  
theatre and literature studies to find out how "memorable and  
meaningful experiences" are created for people (in their perception  
of course quickly reconfigured as "consumers"). Hence the use of  
these words, ironic paraphrasing,  In a fully fledged argument I  
would rarely use such terms as "meaningful" and "memorable" and the  

And yes indeed, such crooky schemes I really don't believe in. At the  
same time I can also give innumerous examples of how commercially  
driven projects can give me meaningful experiences, etc... HOWEVER  
here the issue of 'use' is the crucial one. How do I use these  
things, how do other people use these things, put them to use and use  
them in all kinds of ways, including seemingly non-utilitarian,  
illogical, unproductive or even counter-productive ways, wasteful,  
excessive, insane (whatever that means), poetic, transgressive, etc  
etc...  the boundaries between the utilitarian and non-utilitarian  
within all of these activities ('uses' in the sense of Certau  
perhaps) are thoroughly blurred.

Is life beyond utility possible today? My intuitive answer without  
further deep contemplation would be yes absolutely, since it is  
nothing else than an attitude, an approach, a use of things within  
and around you. Then again, within a digital environment every  
possible message is fully articulated in a finite digital scheme of  
encoding, governed by an operational logic that is ultimately  
preprogrammed (in the software, systems, standards, etcetera), which  
would make all interactions there (here) appear exclusively  

What I object to first of all is the use of the word "authentic" (I  
never used that term) - in the Bataille discussion the issue is about  
whether a particular human activity is guided by external aims beyond  
the activity itself (as most human actions are) versus a type of  
activity that is guided only by its intrinsic dynamic - Bataille  
thinks there are forms of experience that leave all external  
objectives behind, all demands of use and utility, are in a way  
complete within themselves, and he suggests that only by leaving all  
demands of usefulness behind us can we come in contact with that  
which is  of sovereign importance to us (as human beings). Obviously  
his suggestion is entirely radical and seems also deeply mystical and  
invites countless rebuttals of inconsistency in his argument. Still,  
this idea I find intriguing and the radically of his suggestion is  
something that can neither be imagined within the Phillips type of  
'Experience Economy', nor is it something specific for a particular  
time or age. I read it much more as an invitation to life.

> Secondly, why have you, Trebor, along with Kluitenberg and  
> Bataille, idealized "life beyond utility"? This is not a  
> universally held ideal. As with the notion of "Art for art's sake",  
> the condemnation of utility arises out of a specific technological  
> approach.  In a previous discussion on this list I argued that the  
> notion of aesthetic 'taste', which also devalues artistic utility  
> (i.e. art is nobler than mere design), was a consequence of  
> literacy, which idealizes private creativity and prizes abstract  
> thought. In oral cultures, on the other hand, all creativity is  
> dialogical and dialogue is inherently public, contextual and  
> constructive - and therefore always utilitarian.

And here I entirely disagree. I don't believe that all creativity is  
dialogical in nature, that it is constructive (in a constructionist  
sense I assume), that therefore all this type of activity is always  
(emphasis on 'always') utilitarian. Here it might be useful to point  
out where my use the idea of 'life beyond utility' originally came  
from - an essay I wrote quite some time ago in response to a  
discussion about future media developments that seemed rather  
misguided, and secondly a series of projects and phenomena that just  
defied explanation. The discussion happened mainly around 2000 when a  
lot of people were speculating on the emergence of new audiovisual  
modalities on the internet (streaming media was the big thing at the  
time), and quite a few people tried to see this in terms of an  
extension of the existing audiovisual broadcast system (i.e.  
constructing a false linearity between  radio - television -  
internet). The text was btw called "Media without an Audience" and is  
widely circulated on the internet.

A lot of things I saw happening around me, both in experimental  
artistic scenes as well as in community and even government initiated  
projects that seemed to defy all logic of either broadcasting, or of  
traditional sender <> receiver relationships in communication. It  
just seemed to me at the time, that what was germinating (and now has  
become some kind of main-stream) just didn't fit the broadcast mould,  
nor even a reconstructed linguistics such as proposed by JF Lyotard  
in his Les Immatériaux notes on the exhibition.

A great example from everyday life around that time was this one: A  
"knowledge-neighbourhood" project was initiated in The Netherlands by  
the government, giving a new residential district in the city of  
Eindhoven full access to fibre-optics to the home. This was around  
1999 or so, giving people 10mbs up and download speed and various  
facilities like access to (video-)servers, on-demand services,  
digital community services, contact with the city government and so  
on. The project started with high hopes, but was aborted after one or  
two years. Main reason cited in reports about the closure of the  
project: people were simply not using the on-demand and other  
services provided for them, but more importantly, monitoring of the  
up and download statistics had revealed that people on this network  
were actually up-loading much more than they were downloading  
(presumably family video's, ripped-off materials and all kinds of  
other 'garbage'). For the officials involved in the project this  
signalled complete failure - what could possibly be the sense of an  
advanced infrastructure, used by people to send out much more  
messages than they ever receive?? i.e. putting out stuff that really  
nobody will ever see - that could thus be equated to 'mere' noise...

At the time I also noticed that lots of artists and friends of mine  
were doing all kinds of weird transmission projects in which it was  
completely unclear who was listening / looking, or if there was  
anybody out there at all? Did it really matter to them? Apparently  
not... But why not?
I couldn't find any probable explanation for this type of behaviour  
and use of advanced communication systems, but I kept finding more  
and more examples that proceeded along similar lines as the ones  
indicated, projects also that started with clear (utilitarian)  
objectives and along the way transformed into something beyond or  
outside of any identifiable objective, yet highly appreciated by the  

Should it all be written off as meaningless? - was it a kind of lost  
Lacanian subject, lost within language and abstract symbol systems,  
deferred from corporeal sensations and principally unable to  
recapture them, thus hopelessly articulating this deferral in the  
very media that denied the corporeal to enter? Or should we regard  
this corporeal dimension as any way a useless chimera, an il/de/ 
lusion, a mystification, false consciousness, or just plainly  

I had no idea how to proceed with this.

At that time I was also reading some older texts of BILWET / ADILKNO,  
the ever brilliant writer collective from Amsterdam, and most notably  
in the Media Archive they wrote about "sovereign media" - media that  
'emancipated' themselves from the need for an audience - the signal  
is simply there, you can pick it up... And obviously they referred  
back to Bataille and his alternative general economy and his ideas  
about the "sovereign" in describing this "UTO" (Unidentified  
Theoretical Object)....

It seemed to me that such approaches could offer a way to get out of  
the pragmatics of linguistic analysis and sender <> receiver  
relationships,and the body-count of audience statistics of broadcast  
(an essentially industrial model), and that this might lead to  
something richer, more diverse, less determinable, and maybe even to  
something not so much governed by market and profiteering principles...

Well, we know now how easy it was for 'industry' to appropriate such  
structures and mechanisms and turn them into a highly profitable  
business-model. This still doesn't mean, however, that some of the  
experiences that people gain from this cannot be 'meaningful' and so  
on, nor that there is not really something else going on than what  
defined broadcast media and their operational logics - that dreadful  
term "user generated content" does signify something different, but  
the sovereign has a hard time establishing itself in the multi- 
million business schemes of YouTube - I guess we have to find that  
somewhere else now.

So, the notion of the sovereign as outlined by Bataille was not so  
much used here as a critique of commercial operations, business  
schemes and so on, but much rather as an attempt to figure out some  
of these media practices that adilkno dubbed "sovereign media" and  
that I saw multiplying around me. The quote Trebor picked up is  
indeed a bit too strict in creating certain binaries, but it was  
primarily a response to a completely fraud business scheme - cultural  
theorists without a job selling their half-baked ideas to the  
business community re-branding literature and theatre as 'experience  
economy' - brought to you by Phillips - give me a break!

Finally, I don't believe in paradigm shifts, certainly not when they  
are proclaimed every few years and with the emergence of new  
technical trick or hyped up concept. What is called "web 2.0" stands  
in a direct lineage to Usenet and many other systems, and ideas that  
far preceded the internet. Therefore I feel that while a lot needs to  
be rethought, but dispensing with critical analysis is not the  
advisable route to go. There's a lot of careful plodding necessary  
and that is simply work, critical work. Like John I feel that Marxist  
orthodoxies should be left behind, but insightful critical ideas and  
procedures can help a lot with figuring out current developments and  
conditions. An uncritical fusion of all these categories, or a new  
type of meta-discourse riding on a culturalist version of the "let's  
all just get along"-type of discourse to me sounds too much like the  
good-old bourgeois denial of (the existence of / reality of) conflict  
- power, inequality and strategic intent have to be taken on board  
together with the phantasmatic, the imaginary, the desirous, the  
subliminal to get anywhere to untangle this giant spaghetti...

Like in this great Esso slogan of the seventies "Es gibt viel zu tun  
- packen wir es an!", I would say let's get to it...


More information about the iDC mailing list